Religion Magazine

Laboratory Tests Can’t Always Catch Modern Forgeries - as Harvard Theological Review Has (inadvertently) Proved

By Goodacre
I am happy to have the opportunity to post a guest blog entry by Andrew Bernhard.  Those who have been following the discussions over the Jesus' Wife Fragment will know Andrew from his all-important contributions showing its dependence on Grondin's interlinear edition of the Gospel of Thomas (especially Jesus' Wife Fragment: Further Evidence of Modern Forgery and The Jesus' Wife Fragment: How the Forgery was done):
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Laboratory tests can’t always catch modern forgeries - as Harvard Theological Review has (inadvertently) proved
Andrew Bernhard
We now know that laboratory tests used to assess the age of papyrus fragments don’t always catch modern forgeries.
In the April 2014 issue of Harvard Theological Review, the results of numerous laboratory tests run on a papyrus fragment were published (some in the periodical, some online). The tests were performed by top scientists from Harvard University, Columbia University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of Arizona.
The papyrus fragment was studied by Micro-Raman Spectroscopy, which revealed the ink consistently had a chemical composition “very similar to carbon-based inks studied for a wide variety of manuscripts including several dated from the early centuries of the Christian era.”
The papyrus fragment was studied by Fourier Transform Infrared Microspectroscopy, which revealed that it was “composed of oxidized cellulosic material, which is consistent with old papyrus.”
Radiocarbon measurements of the papyrus fragment were carried out by accelerated mass spectrometry twice, first showing the fragment dated between 681 and 877 CE, then showing it dated between 648 and 800 CE (median 718 CE).
This papyrus was a fragment of the Gospel of John: nothing in the laboratory tests suggested it was a modern forgery . . . but it is.
Since seeing images of the papyrus fragment on Harvard Divinity School’s website last Thursday, Christian Askeland has demonstrated that this Gospel of John fragment simply cannot be a genuine ancient manuscript. It shares all 17 of its line breaks with another manuscript of John (Codex Qau). Given that scribes had different size handwriting, page widths varied, etc., authentically ancient manuscripts just don’t have this kind of similarity with each other.
And they certainly NEVER have the same kind of relationship Askeland has noted here. The recently examined Gospel of John fragment copies every other line break from Codex Qau . . . with one exception. The last two line breaks copied from Codex Qau are consecutive – it’s a page break in an edition of the codex published in 1924 that separates them instead.
While science has given us many exciting and powerful tools that can be used in laboratory analysis, these tools unfortunately can’t always answer the questions we would like. In the future study of manuscripts, we would all be better served if we gave other types of analysis (textual, paleographic, etc.) the consideration they genuinely deserve.
If one modern forgery could escape detection in laboratory tests, is there any reason to suspect that another couldn’t as well?
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